In this entertaining but flawed debut novel, Marek Cain, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, races to expose aging Nazis before they die off.
It’s late 1994, and Cain’s job is complicated by the recent Republican Revolution and new House Speaker Mitch Conroy, self-righteous crusader against big government. One afternoon, a German woman arrives in Cain’s office and claims to have documents concerning Belzec, Poland, where half a million Jews were murdered in the winter of 1942. Cain isn’t surprised when she doesn’t return with them as promised…until he reads that a woman wearing her distinctive red brooch has been murdered. His investigation leads to a singer named Roberto Delatrucha, who’s soon to receive a prestigious national arts medal—an honor sponsored by Conroy, to whose campaign Delatrucha contributed. Cain, an Orthodox Jew and a man of straightforward, predictable habits, finds himself in sudden danger: Cryptic warnings appear; friends die mysteriously; and he’s attacked by right-wing militiamen whose links to the case he can’t fathom. Elsner possesses a command of Holocaust history, and the plot twists accelerate nicely. He plays, too, with the ways that religious obligation might hamper a protagonist—it’s hard to imagine Rambo, for instance, sequestering himself in mid-crisis because it’s Shabbat and he can’t drive or turn on a light.
An intriguing protagonist, terrifying historical lessons and a well-orchestrated, pulse-pounding conclusion redeem Elsner’s first effort, which is marred slightly by its workaday prose, and more than slightly by an embarrassing romantic subplot.